A new dictionary-related inquiry

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Aug 30 02:15:43 UTC 2012

A legal scholar has asked me to pass on the following questions.  If anyone wants to respond, please post to the list or send a private e-mail to me at fred.shapiro at yale.edu<mailto:fred.shapiro at yale.edu>:

"Although I struck out with my initial inquiry last May, I now have a more specific inquiry that might yield something more fruitful.

I have almost completed coding my dataset of approx. 120 Supreme Court cases in which the justices since 1987 have used specific dictionaries to help justify their decisions (55 criminal cases; 41 labor and employment cases; 21 business and commercial cases).  In exploring some of the lexicographic literature (e.g. Sidney Landau, Howard Jackson, Herbert Morton's book about Webster's Third, and the Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography) I have regularly come across a basic distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive definitional approaches.

As you may know, Webster's Third sharpened the debate as to whether definitions should tend toward authoritative pronouncements on what a word's meaning Ought to be, or instead attempt to describe the way(s) a word is actually used by members of a speech community. I have coded for a range of specific dictionaries (plus a catchall category), and I wonder if there is some recognized taxonomy on this topic. My own sense is that Webster's Third falls clearly in the descriptive camp, and I would tend to place the OED there as well. Webster's Second appears more prescriptive in its approach, and the American Heritage, which seems to eschew databases and instead to rely on a panel of 200 prominent scholars, writers and others (including Justice Scalia!!) to help gauge acceptability, also seems prescriptive. Black's Legal Dictionary, which treats the judicial definitions from West's Words & Phrases the way general dictionaries might treat citation files or electronic corpora, strikes me as more prescriptive--because judicial interpretations are self-conscious efforts to decree the meaning of words rather than collected examples of word usage.

I am hoping that someone in your Dictionary Society cohort has views about this kind of classification, or can refer me to sources that address the distinction among specific dictionaries. Apart from Justice Scalia's occasional sarcastic asides about Webster's Third, the Justices don't address the difference (for words they "define" via dictionaries) between descriptions of usage and pronouncements about the most correct usage--but their own patterns of reliance suggest that several may have individual dictionary preferences.

Assuming there is some kind of prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy (or perhaps a continuum?), I also am trying to assign a place to other dictionaries that the Justices use with some frequency: (i) Random House; (ii) Funk & Wagnalls; (iii) Webster's Collegiate; (iv) 19th century dictionaries; (v) dictionaries of etymology (Barnhart and Oxford); (vi) other law dictionaries (Ballentine's, Bouvier, Burril ); (vii)  technical dictionaries of medicine, chemistry, business, accounting, finance, economics. Thoughts from you or your colleagues on any of these additional dictionaries are welcome.

Please feel free to share this email with others who might be interested; I welcome insights from those with far more lexicographic expertise than I have as part of my examination into how the Court is using (or misusing) dictionaries."

Fred Shapiro
YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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